The Count and Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro present characters with two very opposing and dramatically different personalities. The Count is distinguished but a buffoon and an adulterer. The Countess is refined and cunning while at the same time hopelessly romantic. Mozart brings these characteristics to the surface right out of the gate, but refines and adds depth as the opera progresses. The core questions to examine with respect to these characters is: what do they want?
Part I: The Count, Figaro and Susanna
The Count doesn’t take the stage until No. 6 but before he shows up we already know a great deal about him. Susanna informs Figaro in No. 2 that the reason that she and Figaro have been provided with lavish new quarters as a gift for their wedding is because the Count wants Susanna close enough for him to slip in and carry out an affair. It’s worthwhile to examine Susanna and Figaro closely as they bring out greater depth in the Countess and the Count. The conflicts that Figaro and Susanna go through are a bright counterpoint to the conflicts of the Count and Countess.
Very unlike the interaction of the Count and Countess later in the play, after Susanna has informed Figaro of the Count’s plans in No. 2 and Figaro doesn’t seem to understand her, Susanna mocks him and Figaro gently deflects it:
S: Because I am Susanna, and you are insane.
F: Thank you, spare the compliments.
In No. 1 we already see what sounds like a “normal” husband/wife conflict that comes to a quick resolution between Figaro and Susanna. He wants to measure the place for their bed, while she wants him to pay attention to her and talk of their wedding. This is resolved quickly and within a few measures Figaro relents and the couple sing of the happiness they feel towards their upcoming marriage. This piece is an uplifting duettino sung in G-Major. We see the same key in No. 8, No. 12, No. 14 and No. 21. All these parts have a common theme of playfulness and affection. This is how these two will act and react throughout the opera. Susanna has a temper (which sometimes erupts in a slap to Figaro’s face) but every time this happens Figaro knows the right words to sooth his beloved and they quickly make up.
Some of the conflicts that face the Count and Countess have already been laid out before either show up. The Count is trying to carry out an affair with his wife’s maid servant and Figaro having found this out has pledged vengeance on the count through what seems a strange set of tactics: “the arcane art of concealing and taunting.” Further, the Count is in a difficult position politically. He has done away with droit du seigneur in name, but still wants to carry it out in fact. Figaro makes great use of this by enlisting the countrymen and women to celebrate this “noble deed” in No. 8. The Count also has unreliable subordinates in the person of Basilio, who not only fails to carry out his wishes to woo Susanna for the Count, but also has a tendency to talk too much.
Lastly, there is Cherubino the page. He will be a thorn in the side of the Count throughout the opera. One of the most intriguing aspects of the relationship between the Count and Cherubino is that the page is a constant problem for the Count without really trying. While Figaro and Susanna (and later the Countess and Marcellina) all work against the Count actively, Cherubino seems to cause trouble for the Count often just by being himself.
Before the Count ever arrives on stage, Cherubino has already been banished from the castle for haunting the quarters of one of the Count’s servants and sometimes bedfellow, Barbarina. Rather than flee, Cherubino tries to enlist Susanna in delivering a canzonetta to the Countess and to ask her to intervene on his behalf.
When the Count does enter in No. 6, we see what he wants very clearly: Susanna. His plan is straightforward and while Basilio has laid the groundwork the Count makes his suit very clear: accept the right of droit du seigneur and the Count will pay her. It’s implied if she accepts the trip to London with the Count he will continue to be her benefactor.
But the Count’s plans are foiled by Cherubino again. Basilio arrives and having heard that Cherubino was headed to her quarters tells Susanna to make the page tame his obvious affection towards the Countess because everyone in the castle has noticed. Basilio doesn’t know the Count can hear him, and when the Count reveals himself Basilio is strangely apologetic and backtracks on his statement. In this very same scene it’s made obvious that Basilio delights in palace intrigue. So his seeming (both through the libretto and Count’s low and forceful vocals a counterpoint to Basilio’s high and deferential vocals) fear of what the Count will do with this new knowledge stands out against his normal behavior. Now that Cherubino has inserted himself unwittingly in this situation, he has caused the Count to think that someone is trying to seduce his Countess. The Count then changes his main goal and becomes determined to keep the Countess true to him.
An item that is interesting to mention at this point is the way that Mozart and De Ponte admirably shape the plot and music in this first part. While we’ve focused on the conflicts that face the Count, the way they are presented thus far it’s really unclear who will come out on top. While we assume in “Le Nozze di Figaro” that our protagonist will get a happy ending, there’s enough dramatic tension deftly generated that one really must wait for the denouement to figure out the winners and losers. And even then, the future is unclear.
This leads us to attempt a first blush summary answer to our initial question as least as it relates to the Count: what does he want and why? It seems thus far that he wants to be an unchallenged bull in the stableyard. He banishes Cherubino at first for sharing Barbarina and again for his attention to the Countess. He is planning to take his officially relinquished right of droit du seigneur with Susanna (which necessitates Figaro being absent) and plans to continue that relationship regularly in London, where he has promised to take Susanna and ensure Figaro is busy enough to leave them time alone. The Count wants lone sexual dominance within his castle. However, while Cherubino, Figaro and Susanna have started to take action against the Count’s designs they are not as effective as the Countess’ plans or her force of will.
Part II: The Countess
We meet the Countess in the opening scene of Act II in a simple aria filled with sadness and longing. We are in E-flat here, the same key that Cherubino sang to Susanna in No. 6. What is important to note here is that in Cherubino’s aria the music is longing, yet hopeful. This fits with a character who has seemingly had great success in love. In the Countess’ aria there is definitely longing but not a great deal of hope. The whole part is larghetto, or “a fairly slow tempo”, the first slow tempo we’ve seen in the opera. Everything else has been played with speed for either comedic effect or reflecting the bravado of the characters.
What’s interesting in comparing the libretto in No. 6 and No. 10 is Cherubino’s description of his feelings as “I know longer know what I am, what I do; now I’m all fire, now all ice.” The Countess’ refrain throughout No. 10 is a similar contrast: “give me back my treasure, or at least let me die.” The choice of phrasing and of making both parts in E-flat seem to signify there is a similarity but a seemingly great difference comes through musically between a youthful love and a mature love. A love with many opportunities in front of it, and a love that should it fail will leave the Countess with not only a terrible grief but a continued torturing of her heart as she must live as the Count’s bride but suffer him flaunting his dalliances.
The instrumentation in No. 10 is the simplest we’ve seen thus far, but also very meaningful. It seems that Mozart and De Ponte want to focus mainly on the libretto and vocals to communicate the feeling of this piece. One can’t help but empathize with the Countess here. We’ve seen how dastardly the Count can be in Act I, and now we hear how the Countess’ reacts and how she suffers because of the Count.
There is one interesting piece of instrumentation in the clarinet and bassoon that may give us some hope for the Count and Countess though. Between each verse, the clarinet and and bassoon play a short duetto. It begins in the 27th measure of No. 10 with just the clarinet playing a short tune:
Then right after in the 29-31st measure, the clarinet comes in again, but the bassoon picks up on the melody and mimics it:
We see this once more in the last three measures of the part where we find the clarinet starting and the bassoon answering again, and then completing the piece with a lovely finish: both playing a G and an A because the clarinet is in B-flat on the 2nd to last notes and then finishing with a lovely combination of clarinet and bassoon in harmony.
If one could look at these short duetto’s within the piece, and specifically notice that they are played while the vocalist is silent, how could one not be a bit hopeful for the Countess’ future? It seems plausible that these pieces are put in to counterbalance the slow longing piece with a bit of hope that if the Countess takes the lead, the Count will come around. It seems from this piece that what the Countess wants is clear: to regain the love of her husband.
Part III: Singing Together
We’ve now seen how the Count and Countess sing apart, but what of them singing together? Our first opportunity for this is in No. 12 and No. 13. So far the Count has, either out of a sense of possessiveness or fear of being cuckolded, launched into action to determine if the Countess is being untrue. At the same time, Figaro launches a plot to further the Count’s suspicion of his Countess’ potential infidelity by putting a scandalous note where Basilio can find it and inform the Count.
The Count returns from a hunt (supposedly, interesting timing…) with the note, and he chooses a bad time to do it as the Countess has Cherubino half naked and alone in her quarters as part of her plot to ensnare the Count. There is certainly a hint in the libretto here that there is potential for the Countess to reciprocate Cherubino’s affection for her which would only inflame the Count more and adds to the dramatic tension. While the Countess shuttles Cherubino off into her closet and tries to persuade the Count she is alone, Cherubino (unwittingly again) bumbles into something in the closet and makes a noise.
The Count’s possessiveness is on display here but also his concern over propriety; his wife hits upon it right away. When the Count demands that she open the closet door, the Countess replies “A scandal, an uproar can still be avoided, I beg you.” This buys the Countess some time as the Count doesn’t want to involve the servants and so must hunt for the necessary tools to open the door himself.
When the Count returns and the Countess admits that it is not Susanna within, the Count turns deadly. He demands from the Countess: “What is it then? Say…or I’ll kill you!” When she admits it’s Cherubino his rage has totally taken hold. We see here why Figaro wanted to confuse the Count with tricks: when the Count feels played upon he goes into a fit of rage that bedevils him. We see this in a bit of comedy, when the Countess tries to defend Cherubino:
Countess: He is innocent, you know it…
Count: I know nothing!
The Count subjects have succeeded in angering and confusing him. Death and vengeance are the only thing on his clouded mind. The libretto is I believe purposely vague in the last few measures. The Count simply repeats “Mora, mora” which could mean that he will kill the page or it could mean he will kill the Countess as well. Probably the Count doesn’t even know what he will do.
When Susanna comes out of the closet, the Count becomes docile quickly. One wonders why the sudden change. Is he embarrassed because he thinks he’s been tricked and goaded into this rage by the Countess and Susanna? Has his rage subsided so quickly because not only is Cherubino nowhere in sight, but also because of his sense of decorum? Can he not let himself lose his temper in front of a servant girl, even one he is trying to bed? If true, how much of this drives his begging the Countess’ pardon and his profession of love to her immediately following this?
Important to what follows in the very next scene between the Count and Susanna is the idea first introduced at this point in the opera by the Countess that the Count is a “cruel man”, or “crudele”. The Countess repeats it several times, and the Count continues to beg her forgiveness, even stooping so low to ask for Susanna’s assistance.
Part IV: The Countess takes the Offensive
The first three things to point out in the pivotal scene in No. 16 is first, the possibility of the Count becoming self aware. Though a short line in the recitative, after looking back on what has happened he says: “and for my honor…honor…where in the devil has human error carried me!” So many possible meanings here: is he thinking about his adultery? Or is he castigating himself for not being able to figure out how he is being manipulated?
The second thing to notice is the Countess continues to press her plot to catch the Count in flagrante delicto but changes her bait from Cherubino to Susanna. The question to ask here is why and what does she want? It seems as if she has thrown off most of the suspicion surrounding her (she could surely overcome Antonio’s not-so-lucid eye witness account) and the Count has professed his love and asked her pardon. Why press on?
The third thing to notice is how the Count’s choice of words echo the Countess’ in the previous scene. In it, the Count’s refrain is “perche crudel?”, “why are you so cruel?” But this time it is he speaking of Susanna’s denying his repeated advances. It almost seems that the Count and Countess have become so accustomed to each other, they share the same taste in language.
What a fascinating relationship we have so far between the Count and Countess. She knows his hot spots: the Count’s fear of embarrassment, of being cuckolded, and his adulterous nature. Yet she hasn’t tamed the bull yet. As soon as Susanna lays the Countess’ trap for the Count in No. 16 claiming she’ll agree to his offer of money for her favor, he jumps at the chance.
This is one of the few parts that is played in a minor chord. We start in the A-Minor before transitioning to the C-Major and finally landing in A-Major. The only other times minor keys are used are briefly in No. 22 and then most notably in Barbarina’s aria in No. 23. The Count sings in the minor key to start No. 16 and sings of how cruel Susanna has been to him and demands to know why she has made him wait so long. Barbarina sings of a lost pin, which most likely represents her lost innocence, and this is a longing much more powerful than the Count’s in No. 16. Perhaps we can gain a greater appreciation for these characters by comparing these two pieces to the Count’s aria in No. 17 and the Countess’ aria in No. 10, respectively.
In No. 23, Barbarina’s aria, there is profound sadness and yearning very similar to the Countess’ aria in No. 10. But it is played in the minor key, just like the beginning of No. 16 when the Count longs to know why Susanna has denied him for so long. It seems that these two pieces, No. 16 and No. 23 go together somehow.
And when the Count gets his aria in No. 17, there is nothing about love. Here he only wants vengeance against those who have wronged him. This part is in D-major, the main key of the play so it seems that we are to pay close attention to this point. This is also the only aria the Count sings. If we compare this to the Countess’ aria, we see what a hopeless romantic she is compared to the Count. Both in No. 10 (and her other aria No. 19), she says she cannot control her love. If she can’t have his love, she wants to die and wishes she could forget the love they shared at one time.
This brings us to an interesting point about the play as a whole: Do any of the main male characters deserve our empathy? Are any of them capable of love? Basilio in his aria in No. 25 comes right out against it and says to wear a donkey’s hide to protect oneself from it. In No. 18, Bartolo agrees to marry Marcellina, but only because they have found their son is Figaro. The Count’s trespasses against his wife’s love have taken up most of the opera thus far. What of Figaro? He seems happy at the idea of marrying Susanna from the very beginning. However, he is a comedic figure and he continues to distrust Susanna until the very end of the play. So we are left with only Cherubino, whose whole person burns with love. Is he even a real person or as Basilio describes him in No 7, is he truly “loves’ cherubin”?
On the other hand can the women in the play do anything but offer forgiveness and love? Simple Barbarina wants to marry Cherubino, the castle Don Juan, yet still accepts the Count’s favors as well. Marcellina wants to buy a marriage to Figaro, a man much younger and of seemingly ignoble birth. Susanna must suffer through Figaro and the Countess’ many plots and schemes (and on her wedding day!) to finally succeed in marrying her man.
And then we have the Countess. What immense love she must bear the Count to put up with his behavior. He carries out his dalliances in almost plain sight. He must notice his wife’s suffering and yet he ignores it. She will stoop so low as to catch the Count in the act of being unfaithful if that’s what it takes to recapture (or so she hopes) his love.
These points are here mainly to bring greater relief to the question: What do the Count and Countess want and why? In No. 28, we see the culmination of all of the characters who schemed and all who loved. Now perhaps in the end the Count becomes infected with love courtesy of Cherubino. He is pricked in the finger by a pin with Cherubino’s blood on it and he is kissed by Cherubino in No. 28 when the page is trying to steal a kiss from the Countess.
We find ourselves reviewing the whole of the opera here during No. 28 musically with five key changes. All in major chords, we go from: D-G-Ef-Bf-G-D. Each of these evokes certain parts that have come before to echo the same feelings of the characters in their parts prior to the opera’s finale.
The key moment to discover what motivates the Count and Countess though is when the Countess reveals herself at the very end. Susanna (in the Countess’ dress) is accused of perfidy with Figaro and begs the Count’s pardon in front of his subjects and the Count denies them vehemently: “no, no, no, no, no, no!” When the Countess reveals herself and the Count realizes he’s been duped it seems that finally we know what the Count and Countess want: he wants her forgiveness for his behavior, and she wants to be asked for it.